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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer takes place in the mid-1800s in St. Petersburg, Missouri, a fictional town that represents Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain grew up. Hannibal is located on the Mississippi River and was a place where travelers embarked and disembarked to ride steamboats along the river. The access to the river makes the characters in the book eager to go on adventures, as does the town's proximity to the unsettled west. In the book, the town also has features in which Tom and Huck Finn have their adventures, including the graveyard where they see Injun Joe murder Dr. Robinson. The town is close to an island where the boys, along with Joe Harper, hide and play pirates and from which Tom can easily hop on a boat back home to witness people speaking about him as if he were dead. The town also has a haunted house, in which Injun Joe finds treasure, and a cave, in which Injun Joe is later found dead. The setting provides places in which the characters can have adventures and escape from the confines of school and home.
Twain's setting on the Mississippi River is essential in formulating the tone of the novel. Set in the 1840s, the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri is still on the western fringes of America. The people are unsophisticated and far from the large cities found farther east; however, they are a close-knit society, where everyone knows one another and they come to each other's assistance when needed. The river setting is important for the pirate theme, and the ease with which the boys can escape from their little town into the relative wilds adds to their exploits and adventures.
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